Church Road Winery, Napier
Sunday, February 5
If there was ever any doubt this was a perfect combination of singer and setting it was quashed as soon as James Taylor bounded onto the stage and praised the venue and bright blue sky a handful of times in and around the opening numbers. James Taylor and his All-Star Band at Church Road Winery was a near-perfect show; it was very much as good as it could have been – I can’t think of a single song I expected to hear and then didn’t. And if there were one or two songs I cared slightly less about – so be it, that’s good going in any concert for the number to be so low.
I had hoped for a great show – strong catalogue, amazing band – what I wasn’t prepared for was Taylor’s energy, his warmth, the calm philosophy that can be traced in the lyrics to so many of his songs clearly informs the man’s life, not just his work. Each band member was introduced with a handshake, hug or nod and when Taylor caught himself too deep in explanation around any of the songs he would break away and dismiss his ramblings as “hippie bullshit”, or remark that if anyone hadn’t heard the new album ahead of the show they were not to panic, “the new ones sound the same as the songs you know”.
He was funny. Energetic and so easily likeable. So much so you could have excused a shake in the voice or any struggle with the music. But Taylor, at 69, sounds as good as he did on those early, vital records; on that white-cover Greatest Hits album that, like this setlist which cherry-picked from that compilation, remains near-faultless.
So to song highlights then – well Walking Man and Country Road early on, the former one of the “hippe bullshit” songs where Taylor’s deft acoustic guitar skills were stunning, if delivered in his humble, low-key way, the latter featuring a kick-ass drum-break from the aptly named Chad Wackerman, a session-great and super-sub for this gig given the advertised Steve Gadd is joining the tour after the New Zealand leg.
The hits continued to arrive – some with a story, Carolina In My Mind written in England, homesick, dreaming of stardom, wowed by meeting The Beatles, signing to their label, the rest being history – Sweet Baby James just one of the handful of songs he knows he now must play every night having “walked through the door” to find “the rest of his life” on the other side after the success of his first three records.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight was the first dose of soul, but there would be plenty more. Encore covers Knock on Wood and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) had everyone up on their feet; ahead of them there was yet another of Taylor’s set-pieces the blues pastiche, Steamroller. For this he even donned an electric guitar. For every other song his precision fingerpicking created the template.
He continued to shower the people with love between songs and was the recipient of huge applause in return every time.
Mexico and Fire and Rain and Up On The Roof and Your Smiling Face were all great, of course, his tender dedication of You’ve Got A Friend – to the song’s writer, Carole King – saved it from being schmaltz, or feeling by-rote.
But it wasn’t just the big, big hits. And it wasn’t only Taylor allowed to shine on stage. As backing singers added violin, and saxophonists were introduced via their roles as former members of the SNL band and The Blues Brothers, we met superstar guitarist Michael Landau and one of the world’s most recorded and constantly in-demand percussionists, Luis Conte. We heard the sound of a band capable of hovering beneath and soaring above, the whisper-to-a-shout dynamics so perfectly accesssed and realised, always mesmerising in how effortless it was all made to seem.
Taylor went back to 1991’s New Moon Shine, an album that helped him out of the mire of the 1980s, for (I’ve Got To) Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That and for the evening’s final song, a posthumous prayer to Martin Luther King, Shed A Little Light. It was as understated as the man himself, delivered as a message – the previous night he’d apologised to the Auckland audience for America’s new president. This time he didn’t say a thing, merely presented it in song, a hope – once again – for the future.
If all of that wasn’t enough there were no less than five covers – the aforementioned Carole King and soul classics and a breezy run-through of Buddy Holly’s Everyday – and so many great songs from Taylor himself.
And before the main act a stunning set from Tami Neilson and her three-piece backing band (Neil Watson on guitar, Mike Hall on bass and backing vocals, Wayne Bell safe-hand subbing on the drums) saw Neilson’s proud voice handle Staples Singer-styled gospel, her own weepy ballads and train-rhythm honky-tonks and just a little bit of blues. Standing at the side of the stage, visible to those of us in the front rows, was James Taylor. Watching – for the duration of Neilson’s set. He even made a point of mentioning how great she had been, how good her band was. As with every note he would go on to play himself that night, he wasn’t wrong.